Australia will not be able to “fly under the radar” when it comes to the climate crisis with the US and other major countries preparing to make new pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years, experts say.
The US president, Joe Biden, has promised to unveil his plan to cut emissions by 2030 before he hosts a virtual summit of 40 national leaders, including Scott Morrison, on Thursday.
New targets are also expected from Japan and Canada, while South Korean media has reported it is likely to announce a moratorium on overseas coal financing.
The US administration has promised an “ambitious” target to back up Biden’s pledge that he will work to galvanise global action ahead of a major UN climate conference in Glasgow in November. Analysts have suggested he is considering a target of at least a 40% cut compared with 2005 levels, and possibly up to 50%.
Biden has released a US$2tn infrastructure plan that he said would allow “transformational progress in our ability to tackle climate change” while his climate envoy, John Kerry, has in the past week visited China, Korea and India in a bid to lock in commitments before the summit. But Biden’s policy faces strong opposition from Republicans in Congress.
Climate diplomacy experts told Guardian Australia they expected the focus on Australia’s position to intensify if the Morrison government sticks to its target of a 26-28% cut by 2030 and saying only that it would meet net zero emissions “preferably by 2050”. More than 100 countries have set a mid-century net zero emissions goal in line with the 2015 Paris agreement.
Dean Bialek, a former Australian diplomat now working with the UN preparing for the Glasgow conference, said this week was likely to be one of the most “poignant and significant moments for climate diplomacy since Paris”. The summit follows a joint climate statement by the US and China, the two biggest emitting countries, issued after Kerry visited Shanghai.
Bialek said the US and Japan were likely to confirm targets “in the range of halving emissions by 2030” which he described as “a massive step forward from where we were in Paris”. It would make the “momentum and enthusiasm for climate ambition” increasingly difficult for other major emitters, including Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and South Korea, to resist. “Seeking to fly under the radar is not an option,” Bialek said.
Christian Downie, an associate professor in climate policy and foreign affairs at the Australian National University, said a China-US statement was significant as it showed the two countries were willing to work together on climate despite being at odds on other issues. The statement reiterated the Paris commitment to “pursue efforts to limit global heating to 1.5C”, and the countries said they both hoped this week’s summit would raise global efforts on climate mitigation, adaptation and support.
Downie said it was further evidence Australia’s position on the climate crisis was not credible. “You don’t have to take my word for it, you can just look at what John Kerry said about Australia not being on the same page on climate change,” he said.
The question is what other countries will do when they get really tired of Australia
Prof Robyn Eckersley
“The Australian government has a choice to continue to window dress its climate record and be lumped with laggards like Russia, Brazil and even Saudi Arabia or it can work alongside our closest ally to achieve significant climate targets and, most importantly, follow Biden’s lead in backing it up with a plan to get there.”
Speaking on Monday night, Morrison repeated the government’s policy was to reach net zero “as quickly as possible and preferably by 2050” through commercialisation of low emissions technology. The Australian prime minister said he had “increasing confidence” the target could be achieved.
But Morrison said his government would not “sacrifice our traditional industries” in regional areas by taxing emissions to reach the goal, and the country would not get to net zero emissions through discussion in “cafes, wine bars and inner city dinner parties”.
Prof Robyn Eckersley, an international climate specialist at the University of Melbourne, said a target of a 50% cut over the next decade was the minimum developed countries such as the US and Australia should be planning given the scientific evidence that global emissions needed to be cut in half by 2030. The wealthy had agreed to move more rapidly than developing countries, reflecting their greater historic responsibility, she said.
Eckersley doubted increased international pressure would lead to greater action, pointing to the lack of response after the UK and French governments denied Morrison a speaking slot at a global climate ambition summit in December.
A letter tabled in Australian parliament showed the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, told Morrison he had not been invited to speak because his government had not set ambitious climate commitments. The UK has a target of a 68% cut in emissions by 2030 compared with 1990 levels and is currently 44% below that year.
“Australia really cannot be shamed. It doesn’t respond to pressure and hasn’t for years and years,” Eckersley said. “We’re really out on a large limb on climate and it’s very cold out there. The question is what other countries will do when they get really tired of Australia.”
Bill Hare, an adviser to developing countries and chief executive of the consultancy Climate Analytics, said Australia already had the third-highest per capita emissions of any country and was “set to fall further and further behind”.
“In Australia, there is no commitment to keep 1.5C in reach, which we know is a level critical to the survival of the Great Barrier Reef,” he said. “Instead there is vague talk about preferring to reach net zero emissions by 2050 but absolutely no action on anything.”
The Morrison government has argued Australia has a history of meeting its emissions targets (an 8% increase between 1990 and 2012 and a 5% cut between 2000 and 2020) where many other countries have failed.
It has also said the 2030 target is not a ceiling – Australia could do more than 26-28% if possible – and it would not set a net zero goal unless it could explain to the public how it planned to get there.